But the Women of Troy face a tough end to the Pac-12 regular season. They travel to first-place and No. 2 Stanford on Wednesday and then to Cal on Friday. They come home and then go north again to No. 16 Oregon the day before Thanksgiving before finishing the slate against crosstown rival No. 18 UCLA.
“We have four matches left and each one of them is unbelievably important,” veteran coach Mick Haley said.
USC is 20-7 overall and at 12-4, three games behind league-leading Stanford and a game up on No. 13 Washington.
The team struggled early, losing to Northern Iowa and Kentucky at Omaha and then lost at Maryland. but did beat three teams that won their respective conferences, Creighton, Albany and Yale.
“We were going through all the stuff you have to go through to get your team resilient,” Haley said.
Now USC has won five matches in a row and six of seven as Haley and staff have repeatedly tinkered with the lineup both heading into and during matches. We caught up with Haley on Sunday.
VBM: So let’s start with what you said the other day, that you’ve been telling your team they’re good enough to go to the final four.
Haley: Yeah, all year I’ve been telling them that (laughs). A lot of this is getting these kids to believe in themselves. For crying out loud. We’ve got enough athletes, we’ve just got to believe.
VBM: But it’s also been a challenge to pull this group together. We talked in the preseason and you just had so many new players and new pieces and new parts, so that’s got to be part of it.
Haley: It has been a real challenge, but for the most part the players have been pretty good at letting me do this, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. Right now I’ve got (junior outside/right side Alyse) Ford not playing and of course she doesn’t like that, and some people who don’t like that, because they like to watch athletes who can jump out of the gym. The problem is (Brooke) Botkin, the freshman, has really come on and she’s low error — passing about a 2.5 — and we win when she’s in there.
We’ve had to change our middles so much, we’ve got four middles that we’re serious about and all four are getting opportunities to play (senior Jordan Dunn, junior Brittany Welsh, junior Madison Murtagh, senior Danielle Geiger). Jordan Dunn’s been really good considering her physical limitations (dealing with a bad back) and not being able to practice. She’s really getting better here at the end of the season.
She’s been getting some big-time stuffs. She stuffed (Utah’s Adora) Anae on match point the other night, I mean it went straight down, and yesterday again she was good in critical situations getting over the net. She’s a 6-5 athlete who can play defense, can pass, can do everything, yet she’s so limited physically and can’t even practice because of the back pain she has. On game days she gets through it and she’s having a heck of a senior year.
We’re pretty stable now on some people in certain positions. We tried playing (senior Niki) Withers on the left and Ford on the left, and that didn’t work, they both were much better on the right. And (senior right side Brittany) Abercrombie has been pretty much unstoppable. She’s wearing down a little bit right now so we have to figure out a way to make sure she’s rested.
And the setters (senior Reni Meyer-Whalley and sophomore Cindy Marina) seem to have stabilized. They’re finally comfortable with all the different moves.
VBM: And (sophomore outside) Khalia Lanier is back after missing two weeks with a concussion.
Haley: Last night (against Colorado) Lanier had her best match so far. She was low error, high production, passed well and played OK defense, so that’s good to see.
VBM: And (junior libero) Victoria Garrick and (sophomore DS) Jenna Adams are doing well.
Haley: They’ve been coming in and doing a heck of a job. So everything’s on the upswing. And everybody’s pretty comfortable right now and this is the first time this year I can say everyone’s pretty comfortable with the lineup and what we’re doing. Those are all positives.
VBM: You enter into a pretty tough part of the schedule, Stanford, Cal, Oregon and UCLA.
Haley: And Cal is always a five-set match for us. It seems that we play five sets with Cal every year. They’re good at home.
We come home and then go back to Oregon for a Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving and come back and have the Bruins and that’s always a slugfest.
VBM: No Thanksgiving vacation for you.
Haley: That’s true.
VBM: So what will you do for Thanksgiving?
Haley: We are all going to Rene Whalley’s home in Beverly Hills and all the families are invited, all the friends are invited. They’re hosting us for Thanksgiving dinner on the tennis court with a tent over it and it’s really nice. They do a wonderful job with it and they open up their home and everyone goes and spends all afternoon and come and go as they please and it’s real nice. The Whalleys have been really, really accommodating. This will be the second year we’ll do this.
VBM: You’ve got to be pleasantly surprised with how things have unfolded this season, right?
Haley: Well, I wouldn’t say surprised, because we always look at what we can do and we have felt like this has been available to us if we can convince the kids. I think all of our coaches have done just a splendid job of teaching and continuing to let them know they can do this. We’re athletic, we’re built for speed and we can do a lot of things. We can spread out teams extremely well if we can score on all four pins.
Right now we’re getting double-digit kills at each pin by two people each in our five-game matches. Some people might say the middles have to score, but sometimes you need middles to block and play defense if you can score.
And we’re athletic and we can come with Ford off the bench. She’s an amazing fireman. She’s responsible for the first win at UCLA because I put her in there and she just went off on the Bruins and we’ve had a succession of matches of her getting in there up until this weekend when I wasn’t able to get her in there. But the last two weeks she’s gone in and given us a pop right when we needed to kick it up. Other teams haven’t been able to that, they just have to stay out there and grind, while we can increase our output. As long as she can handle that, coming in and not starting, that’s really helped us a lot.
VBM: You’ll likely move up but obviously you want to get into the top 16 so you can host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Haley: I don’t know where they’ll put us in the rankings, but I’m only concerned with the RPI. I really think for us to do well in the NCAA Tournament, we have to host first and second rounds. Otherwise, you’ve got kids trying to take finals and travel and play three good competitions.
“The other side of it is we can’t afford not to do well these last four matches.”